As an Moroccan Muslim following the stunning military-led transition now underway in Egypt, I am reminded of a rabbinic adage I once heard from a Jewish friend: "He who tries to hold too much ends up holding nothing." This pithy statement speaks to what is happening now as well as the question of what would best serve both Egypt and the broader region in the future.
In retrospect, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood overreached. The more politically pragmatic side of the movement's leadership had advised, prior to the first presidential elections in Egypt after the 2011 revolution, that the Brotherhood refrain from fielding a candidate. A Brotherhood president would be too much, too soon for a movement deeply distrusted by a vast swath of the population and the West. Better to leverage its support base in parliament and position itself as a behind-the-scenes "kingmaker." Amid economic collapse and a burgeoning crime wave, let a non-Islamist serve as figurehead and take the blame for the country's woes, while the Brotherhood more gradually enters the corridors of power and only gains in popular esteem. It was the wily Khairat Shater who thought otherwise and expected to become president himself, but was prevented from doing so by Egypt's judiciary. And so a lesser figure was tapped to step in.
With the reins of power in the Brotherhood's hands, Morsi attempted to decapitate the army, cripple the judiciary, and monopolize the media. But each of these sectors was thoroughly dominated by his opponents, and Morsi lacked both a support base within them and an alternative cadre of people with the skills needed to replace the functionaries he meant to remove. This, combined with a vast popular backlash and a deep state that had wished to torpedo his presidency to begin with, wrecked 80 years of painstaking Brotherhood activism in fewer than two.
Now it is Egypt's military leadership that faces the temptation to "hold too much." Will this powerful institution exploit the people's anger at the Brotherhood to reconstruct a secular dictatorship? Within the army, as well, there are Khairat Shater-like voices that wish for total control, as well as more pragmatic ones that would serve to safeguard the army's interests without overstepping and thereby enraging the population. But whereas the Brotherhood's decision to overstep was mainly self-defeating, the army's choice to do so would be a tragedy for the nation as a whole. The military is the only institution in Egypt capable of overseeing a real transition toward civil society and pluralism.
I fear that the military leadership has not yet grappled with the implications of their unique responsibility. The decision to arrest senior Brotherhood leaders and shut down Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood media may be a foreshadowing of events to come. Denying Islamists the opportunity to participate in the political process will force them underground. They are a powerful movement, perhaps not capable of managing the state on their own but certainly in a position to wreak vengeance on the country through violent action. If they are denied their place at the table, they would be likely to choose this option.
As CEO of a media company in Morocco, I am also concerned about the media in Egypt in the broader region. So shrill have been the debates on public discussion forums on TV networks, so one-sided and partisan has been the news networks' coverage, that the media have immensely contributed to the political and sectarian polarization that imperils Egypt and many of its neighbors. We too can play a role in fostering pluralism, and it is incumbent on us to do so.
At this crucial moment, the United States has an important role to play as well. It wields enough leverage over the military to significantly affect its decision making. President Obama should use this power to help the country overcome its polarized politics and prevent yet another switch from one dictatorial structure to another. Now is not the time for the administration to step back; now is the time for decisive action.